Donna’s write way to cope

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This year, one in four people will experience a mental health problem - and most will be women with children. One of Sheffield’s most respected women reveals her experience of mental illness

On the Wybourn and Manor estates, everyone knows Donna Jones. Big-hearted, open and warm, for 16 years the youth worker listened to, cajoled and cared for the estate kids.

Thousands whose lives she touched in adolescence must now be leading happier, healthier, more fulfilling lives as a result. In 2011 she was awarded an MBE for her devotion to young people.

But few ever knew that her own childhood had been traumatic and troubled. The extrovert with a compassionate, understanding and enduringly positive soul rarely talked about her own demons; the early life that could have scarred her, but instead shaped her. Polished her into one of life’s diamonds.

Donna grew up in Barnsley. Her dad was a miner at Barnsley Main and a singer in the WMCs. Her mum was a chronic depressive. The mental illness so crippling, Edna was in and out of psychiatric hospitals and subjected to electric shock treatment time and again. The illness affected the entire family.

Donna’s early years are mapped by her mother’s absences and visiting her in big, white rooms. Her memories of growing up with her two brothers are painfully studded with recollections of her mother sobbing; her mother raging; her mother wishing she was dead. And of trying desperately to please this woman who saw life through a bleak, acrid cloud.

Donna Jones, of Walkley, with dog Pip and her book Blue Devils.

Donna Jones, of Walkley, with dog Pip and her book Blue Devils.

“We thought we were the cause of her unhappiness and constantly tried to make her happy,” she recalls.

“We had to be so careful what we said to her as we never knew how she would respond. It was like walking an emotional minefield, but we thought every family was like that.

“We couldn’t sit down, have a conversation. Talking things through was impossible. The best way was to be silent. It was very unhealthy for us as children, keeping everything inside.”

Perhaps the worst cross Donna, now 55, had to bear was guilt. It was her birth that had triggered her mother’s mental illness.

Steel Inn Youth Project team Leader Donna Jones

Steel Inn Youth Project team Leader Donna Jones

“At 27, she was taken into hospital when I was three months old. She had told people she was planning to poison us both. She was there for three months and I was looked after by a relative.

“Her life should have been rosy. She had a husband, a baby, a home of her own. But she’d got post natal depression. Because of me.”

She stresses, though, she and her brothers were deeply loved - and that there were happy times.

“It wasn’t always a negative experience; mum was fiercely protective of us three kids and very caring. She knitted, made clothes for us, made a beautiful home.

Manor Youth Worker - Donna Jones

Manor Youth Worker - Donna Jones

“She took us to parks and the cinema, bought us lots of toys and book. She wanted us to have a better life than she had.”

Edna was to go into psychiatric hospital for treatment for severe clinical depression five times in her life; another one of those bouts was triggered by Donna, when, at 17, she told her mother of her plan to go to university.

But by then Donna knew that there was nothing she could do and nothing to feel responsible for. That her mother’s illness harked back to her own unhappy childhood, dominated by a bullying, abusive father.

Could that be why she went into youth work, to help young people deal with the complications in their lives that they keep hidden and struggle to deal with alone?

Maybe not consciously, but that’s what she did, for 31 years.

She does acknowledge that her experiences with her mother probably made her a better youth worker. “I got so that I could read her; one expression would tell us what was coming. In my job, it enabled me to look below the surface with people and to be abler to read situations very quickly.”

Sadly, though, she also inherited a genetic disposition for depression. After university, Donna moved into her own home and became a teacher. She fought against the hold her mother had on her, sending presents and paying for holidays in a vain attempt to lift her spirits, from a distance.

She couldn’t escape it all. At 35, during a period of stress at work, she fell ill. She didn’t recognise depression at first, even though she’d grown up surrounded by it.

She now has it under control and happily accepts she must monitor her stress levels and needs medication for life.

“I manage myself. I wish mum had been able to do that. Her life - and ours - would have been so different”.